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A former editor's opinion

By Jonathan McJunkin

If Facebook activity is any indication, Hannah Zeeb’s piece last week, “First Year, First Critiques,” is the most discussed piece this paper has seen in a long time—so I doubt I can say anything about its content that hasn’t been said already. Some have contended that it shouldn’t have been published at all for a variety of reasons—for the sake of the writer’s reputation, because of its content, or because of its mechanics. As last year’s Opinion section editor, I’d like to shed some light on how we handle student submissions, and why I 100 percent stand by The Mac Weekly’s decision to publish this piece. When I was the section editor, the only pieces I received and didn’t publish were essentially sales pitches written by people loosely connected to Macalester. This means that every single time a student wrote an opinion piece by the deadline it made it into the paper eventually. As a rule, I was completely unselective. How can I justify this and still claim to hold the paper to any kind of standard? It’s very simple: any selection I could have done on student commentary, beyond not allowing hate speech, would be completely artificial. I never received so many submissions that I couldn’t not publish them all either that week or the following week. Why would we want to artificially limit the space for public expression? The role of the editor of the Opinion section is to publish as many of those submissions as possible. I believe all writing has the potential to be worthwhile as long as it is comprehensible—that is, if it succeeds in saying what it wants to say. This is where I did my job as an editor. I would fix spelling and grammar mistakes, along with typos, and break up the paragraphs so the piece would look nice on the page. If something was unclear, or I thought a different word would have worked better, I would email the writer with suggestions and wait for them to respond. It is in this role where The Mac Weekly made a mistake. The online version was unfortunately an earlier draft of the article, different from the one that made it to print. The word “slut” was included in that version and not in the final edited version that appeared in the paper, and there were more typos present online than there were in print. The blame for any grammar and spelling errors in the final copy fall on the editors, not the writer. It also may have been helpful to ask her for more clarification. That said, as someone who’s done this editing, writing and laying-out of a student publication thing ever since I got to college, errors slipping through when you’re devoting as much time as a part time job to putting out content every week is understandable. It’s tough to catch every single mistake at four in the morning. This doesn’t make us immune from criticism, but some of the commentary on editing mistakes makes it seem like we don’t care, and nothing could be further from the truth. We’re all learning here—you can’t expect anything approaching perfection. The idea that we should have declined to publish this op-ed on the basis of content can be dismissed out of hand. I invite you to make the case that the section would be better if instead of running articles written by students in good faith we chose to arbitrarily not print them and instead fill the space they would have gone in with a fake ad, an article from past issues, or something quickly thrown together by an editor who writes all the time. When it comes to submissions, we have a responsibility to present student ideas in their best possible form through editing. We do not have a responsibility to pick which among those ideas is “best” or “good enough” for us. I also find the idea of protecting writers from the potential backlash of their words to be incredibly patronizing. We should make sure they are saying what they want to say, yes, but telling them they shouldn’t say something they sincerely mean because it might be offensive to some people for their protection is ridiculous. Part of free speech is that whatever you say is open to criticism and I think students at Macalester are smart enough to understand that. And now, Hannah Zeeb, if you are reading this, I’d like to say a few things to you. I don’t think your article was successful. It tried to say something about the alienation of the beginning of freshman year, something that I can certainly relate to, and the culture shock that can happen joining a new community, in a tongue-in-cheek and humorous way. Instead, it came off as a weak and rushed analysis that was hard to understand and upset people who value the Macalester community. I tweeted last weekend: “‘The Macalester so called community is one that I cannot describe in a half page article as a first year.’ So perhaps you should, maybe, not.” Snarky and unproductive as that may have been, I stand by its general sentiment. Your description of Macalester does sound like someone who knows very little about it wrote it. That being said, you should keep writing—and I’m not saying this in a banal way that means everyone can write and everyone is a unique flower. I mean “First Year, First Critiques” demonstrates some things that I think you could develop into writing really great commentary. You try to tackle a really huge topic. Not only that, but you write in a way that makes it clear that you are trying to develop a real, verbal voice that people can hear when they read. You also tried to be funny. Doing any one of those things is hard, doing all three at once is nearly impossible, and trying to do them all during a first attempt at writing publicly in college is crazy. It showed a lot of guts. I’m not saying you succeeded at any of those, but if you keep writing and try to stay more within yourself and what you know, you will succeed. Next time you write something, take a little more time to flesh out your views and streamline your voice, but don’t lose your drive for uniqueness, and make sure there is a next time. refresh –>

October 19, 2012

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